Prospect Retrospective and Career Profile: Chris Carpenter, RHP, St. Louis Cardinals
From the sound of today's news conference, Cardinals pitcher Chris Carpenter won't pitch in 2013 and will probably never pitch again. His history as a prospect is certainly interesting, so here is a review of how his career has gone.
Carpenter was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in the first round of the 1993 draft, 15th overall, from high school in Manchester, New Hampshire. Signed to a $580,000 bonus, he made his pro debut for Medicine Hat in the Pioneer League in '94, posting a 2.76 ERA with an 80/39 K/BB ratio in 85 innings with 76 hits allowed. Scouts liked his size, projectability, low-90s fastball, and power curve, but he needed better control and a better changeup. Nowadays, a similar prospect would probably get a Grade B from me.
The Jays pushed Carpenter up to High-A Dunedin in the Florida State League to begin 1995. He posted an excellent 2.17 ERA in 99 innings through 15 starts, however his K/BB ratio was quite poor at 56/50. The Jays promoted Carpenter to Double-A Knoxville for the second half, and not surprisingly he struggled, posting a 5.18 ERA with a 53/31 K/BB in 64 innings, allowing 71 hits. The arm strength was here but he wasn't ready for Double-A, and there was some concern that he was mishandled. I gave him a Grade C+ in my 1996 book. That was my first book and nowadays I think I would have gone with a B- or stuck with a B, given his age.
Carpenter returned to Knoxville for 1996 and was more effective, posting a 3.94 ERA with a 150/91 K/BB in 171 innings with 161 hits allowed. He made progress with his curveball and changeup, although his overall command remained problematic. I moved him up to a Grade B in the 1997 book, noting that Carpenter "could be a great pitcher if he gets more command of his stuff."
Carpenter split 1997 between Triple-A Syracuse (4.50 ERA, 97/53 K/BB in 120 innings) and the major league rotation, going 3-7, 5.09 with a 55/37 K/BB in 81 innings in 13 starts for the Jays. He improved in his sophomore season (12-7, 4.37), but injuries and further command problems hampered his career with the Blue Jays. He never fully lived up to his potential in Toronto and drew his release at the end of the 2002 season.
The Cardinals signed Carpenter in the off-season, but he missed all of 2003 recovering from a torn labrum. When he came back in 2004, better health and a fresh start with a new team revived his career. He suddenly looked like the pitcher everyone thought he could be. He went 15-5, 3.46 in 182 innings, then followed that up with a Cy Young season in 2005: 21-5, 2.83 with a 213/51 K/BB in 242 innings.
Carpenter has continued to battle health issues through his career in St. Louis, missing most of the 2007 and 2008 due to Tommy John surgery, and most of 2012 due to thoracic outlet syndrome. In between injuries, he's been a superior starting pitcher for the Cardinals.
Overall, in 2219 career innings, Carpenter has a 144-94 record, a 3.76 ERA, and a 116 ERA+ with a 1697/627 K/BB ratio.
It's really been two separate careers: with the Blue Jays, he was quite mediocre, with a 49-50 record, 4.83 ERA, 98 ERA+ in 871 innings, with 11.8 WAR. With the Cardinals he's been excellent, going 95-44 (.683) in 197 career starts for the Cardinals, with a 3.07 ERA, 133 ERA+, 1085/296 K/BB in 1349 innings, 30.9 WAR.
If his career ends now, his career 42.7 WAR would put him in a class with starters like Urban Shocker (43.1), Virgil Trucks (42.1), Bartolo Colon (42.0), and Burt Hooton (41.7), all very valuable pitchers.
LESSONS LEARNED: Context and team support can matter a lot. Struggling pitchers sometimes improve dramatically.